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From Bob Dylan to Nirvana: The ten greatest 'MTV Unplugged' performances

To be invited to play on MTV Unplugged was a sign of significant accomplishment. The lauded acoustic sessions rank among the most intimate moments we’ve ever seen some of our favourite artists take part in, and they’ve helped to create a genuine rapport between musicians and their fans over the years. 

For instance, Nirvana’s 1993 session is one of the most candid reflections of Kurt Cobain’s persona we got before his untimely death and continues to reflect his character nearly 30 years later. Sessions such as this have helped cement a figure’s iconic status, which is why they are so important. 

No one is sure how the show actually came about, which is strange for such a cultural phenomenon. Vocalist Jules Shears has claimed that it was he who devised the show when promoting his album, The Third Party. “What if we put these people together and create a show which consists of everybody playing songs together, but only with acoustic instruments, and we’ll try to get it on HBO or something?” Shears said.

The first series of the monumental programme aired in November 1989, with British heroes Squeeze performing a stellar set from New York’s National Television Centre. The location would be set for all of the early shows before the company moved it to wherever an artist chose, in the name of logistical ease. Massive artists who have graced the show’s stage include Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Elton John and countless others. 

One would argue that McCartney’s performance was what really crystallised the show’s importance in the collective conscience. His 1991 outing took the show into the major leagues, with many commentators arguing this is where the show peaked. The jury is still out on this one, with many of the show’s most notable performances staking a good claim for the top spot. 

Nevertheless, to celebrate this great institution, here are ten of the finest performances from MTV Unplugged history.

The ten greatest ‘MTV Unplugged’ performances:

R.E.M. (1991)

R.E.M. could do no wrong when they walked through the doors of their Unplugged session in 1991. Recorded less than a month following the release of their massive seventh outing Out of Time, the performance confirmed the band as true indie heroes. It helped to send the album to the top of the charts, and the performance was a melancholia-drenched class act. 

The band were incredibly nervous before the set and hadn’t played live for nearly two years up until that point. Well, they succeeded in overcoming their fears and winning over new fans. They ran through a hugely impressive set which captured the band at the height of their career. Millions watched, and millions bought the record. 

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (1994)

Witnessing two of rock music’s biggest titans reuniting after a long hiatus was quite something. The appearance of Page and Plant confirmed that the show was now a cultural institution, as you couldn’t really get much bigger than the two icons of the genre. It’s a shame John Paul Jones didn’t join in on the act, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. The performance was incredible. Their rendition of ‘Rain Song’ from Houses of the Holy stands out as one of the highlights of the whole series. 

Plant said of the reunion: “By that time I didn’t feel like I was even a rock singer anymore. Then I was approached by MTV to do an Unplugged session. But I knew that I couldn’t be seen to be holding the flag for the Zeppelin legacy on TV. Then mysteriously Jimmy turned up at a gig I was playing in Boston and it was like those difficult last days of Led Zep had vanished. We had this understanding again without doing or saying anything. We talked about the MTV thing and decided to see where we could take it.”

Nirvana (1993)

The Nirvana unplugged session makes a very strong claim for the top spot, sorry, McCartney and Clapton. Featuring Nirvana classics, more niche numbers, covers and even appearances from The Meat Puppets, there is no down point of this episode. Even Cobain’s interactions with the crowd and audience are iconic. The cover of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is perhaps the highlight of the set, and Cobain’s acoustic redux of the emotive guitar solo at the end is a real tearjerker. 

Bowie was even in awe of Nirvana’s cover, saying: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.”

The Starman, ever the lover of original artists, added: “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”

Oasis (1996)

Oasis’ Unplugged is a notorious episode. It saw Noel Gallagher thrust into the limelight as brother Liam copped out, leaving the band in the lurch.
The producers of the show even admitted that in the run-up to recording, they were nervous about Liam due to his bad-boy image being plastered all over the tabloids.

Liam, who had been AWOL up until this point, showed up on the day of the performance after being on an alleged bender for a couple of days. An hour before they were due to go on, he miraculously appeared “absolutely shitfaced”, and was unable to sing any of the songs. He decided not to perform for the cameras due to this reason. So it was up to Noel to save the day, and that he did. They performed 12 stellar tracks, including ‘Some Might Say’ and ‘Live Forever’, all whilst Liam heckled them from the balcony.

Lauryn Hill (2001)

Watching Lauryn Hill take to the stage whilst pregnant with her third child shows just how much of an icon the ex-Fugees member is, for even pregnancy couldn’t stop her from dazzling. The queen of hip-hop in the 1990s, Hill took to the stage all by herself, with an acoustic guitar in tow, and shocked the world with her gorgeous new soul tracks.

A polarising effort to some diehard fans of her early material, to anyone objective, this performance is stunning. It’s aged like a fine wine, and these days is rightly hailed as a masterpiece. Even Solange and Adele have noted the influence of the performance, which is massive.

Neil Young (1993)

Another strong claimant for the top spot, Young’s 1993 performance is simply brilliant. A candid collection of greatest hits, the crowd and audiences got to hear clearly the pain and introspection that underpinned many of the Canadian troubadour’s best-loved songs. Be it ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, ‘Harvest Moon’ or even ‘Helpless’, the bearded Young broods from behind his black sunglasses.

Captivating and emotive, here Young truly proved himself to be one of the best lyricists of the past 50 years. You hear his sentiment clearly, and it really drives his messages home. This is most clear on ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ as he sings of lost bandmate Danny Whitten and the destruction that heroin addiction does.

Alice in Chains (1996)

This 1996 performance is incredible. Here, we get to witness the brotherly love shared between guitarist Jerry Cantrell and late frontman Layne Staley, and as Staley messes up ‘Sludge Factory’, Cantrell and the crowd has his back, and it is so bittersweet given that we knew that Staley was in the throes of the all-encompassing heroin addiction that would eventually claim his life.

Staley manages to compose himself and has a stellar show. Sat looking weak from his illness, but donning an uber-cool pair of shades as well as his classic pink haircut, some of the takes rank amongst his best performances, including ‘Would?’ and ‘Down in a Hole’. Staley was a total legend, and it’s through performances like this that his spirit lives on.

Bob Dylan (1995)

We already knew Bob Dylan was a master when he took to the stage in 1995 to deliver one of the finest Unplugged performances to date. It’s not often that the world has got to witness ‘The Bard’ so up close and personal. One of the most heavily mythologised figures in all of rock, over the course of his lengthy performance, everything about Dylan’s almost inhuman skill as a songwriter and performer is confirmed.

His voice is as good as on record, and his stripped-back renditions place his poetic lyrical work front and centre. ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin” and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ are just three highlights of a stunning set.

Paul McCartney (1991)

A mixture of covers and originals, this was the performance that kicked it all off for Unplugged. Featuring a cover of Bill Withers’ masterpiece ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ as well as the legendary acoustic number by The Beatles in ‘Blackbird’, McCartney showed just how much of a legend he was with this set. He covered his idols, peers he respected and paid tribute to late songwriting partner John Lennon by performing a varied mixture of their songs, including the early hit ‘We Can Work It Out’. It is nothing short of classic.

McCartney later said: “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves. We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album.”

Pearl Jam (1992)

Eddie Vedder‘s voice is fantastic, and on Pearl Jam’s edition of Unplugged, we hear it clearly. The normally powerful guitars of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are stripped back, and Vedder’s voice fills the hole resoundingly. Powerful and defiant, it carries all of the energy of Pearl Jam’s early recordings and confirmed Eddie Vedder as one of the most masterful frontmen of the modern era.

The second track, ‘State of Love and Trust’, is a standout as is their cover of Neil Young’s anthem ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’. The set also contains massive tracks such as ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Alive’, and it is one of the finest points of Pearl Jam’s heyday.